Treasures: Figurehead is Likely One of Few That Have Survived From 19th Century

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I have this wooden statue that I purchased at auction years ago, which is flat on the back. He is 53 inches tall. I have him hanging on my dining room wall and enjoy him tremendously. I would like to know if there is any monetary value to him. My guess is he represents a fireman due to his hat, high collar and (I believe) a hose held in his hand. What can you tell me about this piece?

Thank you,

N. P., Hooksett, N.H.

Dear N. P.:

When we see carvings such as this one we are immediately suspicious and feel the vast majority of these were crafted in the Far East for decorative purposes and were made to deceive.

But upon studying your excellent photographs quite closely, we decided we had rushed to judgment and that the piece might actually be authentic and old. But exactly what was it designed to be? The answer to this question may come as something of a surprise.

Frankly, when we first saw the photos we thought this was a fireman too, but a little research convinced us we were looking at the depiction of a seaman (perhaps a captain) holding a telescope, not a fire hose. Suddenly, with this information, the purpose of this piece becomes a little clearer. It was meant to be a ship’s “figurehead” and was originally used on a mid-19th century sailing vessel. It is probably English in origin.

Figureheads were bow decorations on ships and were meant to protect those serving on board. Religious, magical, animal, avian and human forms were thought to protect the ship’s crew from the onslaught and strength of the crashing waves and raging seas. These figures were built out over the water, emerging form the ship’s head to protect both the bow and the crew.

Often made of soft perishable wood – like the pine used to make the example in today’s question – few have survived intact. Egyptians and the Norse used these protective totems in antiquity, but most of these figures that survive are from the 19th century. They were crafted in shops by trained craftsmen who might also have made figures for the circus, tobacco shops and carousels.

The decoration on the hat suggests this is a representation of a ship’s officer rather than just a common seaman. Also, he is holding a telescope, which we think is there to indicate the necessity of far sightedness to see danger through the waves and an aid to getting the crew to a safe port. We noted the rope curled at and below the seaman’s waist holding him to the ship so he and the vessel do not lose their way. Lastly, the acanthus leaves at the base probably symbolize immortality or at least, the hope for a long life.

This figure might have been more valuable if it had been American in origin, been less stiff and had more motion, been a full figure rather than a 3/4 figure, and had much more “old” paint on it. As it is, this ship’s figurehead has an insurance replacement value in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. In England, the price should be higher.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.


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